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Book Excerpt

Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times

Bill Boyarsky
Political Correspondent
Bill Boyarsky is a political correspondent for Truthdig. He is a former lecturer in journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication of the University of Southern California. Boyarsky was city editor of…
Bill Boyarsky

“Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” tells the story of Los Angeles and the L.A. Times through the lives of the paper’s publishers, beginning with Gen. Harrison Grey Otis in the late 19th century. As the late David Halberstam wrote: “No single family has dominated any major region of the country as the Chandlers have dominated Southern California. They did not so much foster the growth of Los Angeles as invent it.”

Below is the epilogue.

The last of the Chandlers, Otis, was driven from the paper by his right-wing relatives who had majority control. The newspaper business was collapsing. Ethical standards were ignored. This paper, which had been one of America’s greatest, was beginning its fall toward mediocrity. The Times, which had been the single most important force in shaping Los Angeles and the rest of Southern California, was now out of the game.

Throughout its history, California has been a precursor to movements that have swept across the country. The story of the decline of the Chandlers could well foreshadow the decline and fall of the old families that run The New York Times and The Washington Post.

As city editor of the Los Angeles Times, I was part of some of the events in this book. I tell the story from the factory floor, the newsroom of the L.A. Times.

“Inventing L.A.” was published by Angel City Press in conjunction with a PBS documentary of the same name produced by Peter Jones.

* * *
Epilogue: The Chandler Era Ends

Most of the time, workers on the factory floor can’t explain why their company failed. By necessity, their view doesn’t extend much beyond the car they are assembling or the supervisor giving them orders. A newspaper, however, is a different kind of manufacturing plant. A number of the workers are journalists, often high-strung creatures, trained to observe every nuance, rumor and fact. At the Los Angeles Times, the journalists’ factory floor—the newsroom—was the best place to observe the sad final decade of Chandler control.

book cover

Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times

By Bill Boyarsky / Based on the film by Peter Jones

Angel City Press, 208 pages

Buy the book

The newsroom, on the third floor, extends the length of a long city block, from one end of the Los Angeles Times building to the other. In 1989, the year Tom Johnson was fired as publisher, the many departments in the room reflected the ambitions of a paper at its height. Books, Fashion, Food, Calendar (covering movies, television, art, and music) occupied one large portion of the room, blending into Sports, and then Business. Near Business were the foreign and national desks, receiving stories from bureaus around the country and the world. Beyond these desks was the Metro staff, covering local news, and then there were the specialists in education, science, medicine, religion and the environment.

Each day, at 10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., their work went on display in a conference room. There, the editors in charge of the sections discussed which stories and pictures to run and where to place them. They would pick a few for page one and consign others to the many inside pages of the paper. The meetings were a daily presentation of events around the world, ranging from violence in the Middle East to a vote in Congress to a mishap on Santa Monica Beach, interspersed with a mix of movies, art, music, sports, food, and literature. Even with Otis Chandler gone, the choices still reflected his philosophy of “mass and class.”

As the 1980s ended, and Chandler and Johnson were driven from power, the journalists in the newsroom were uneasy. The paper was adrift. They had a new publisher, David Laventhol. Another unknown quantity, Shelby Coffey III, was editor, replacing Bill Thomas, who retired in 1989. Upstairs, the conservative Chandlers were in firm control of the board and were more determined than ever to revive the legacy of Harry Chandler—and make a lot of money while doing it. They found support in the Times Mirror hierarchy, now under the firm control of Robert Erburu.

Ideology was no longer an issue. With Tony Day gone, the conservatives had won and objections to a liberal editorial slant faded. The editorial pages became bland. The editorial board’s daily and lively discussions of issues, which had largely shaped the editorials, were abandoned. The great liberal cartoonist, Paul Conrad, left the paper in 1993, replaced by a conservative, Michael Ramirez.

Now the main pressure was economic. After two years of declining earnings, Times Mirror reported a loss in the fourth quarter of 1991. Company executives said the editorial department was fat and wasteful.

The atmosphere grew even more unsettling when Laventhol, the new publisher, instituted some cost-cutting measures, including elimination of first-class air travel. Rumors swept through the newsroom. The rebellious nature of the staff—a hangover from the journalists Thomas had hired and nurtured—heightened the staff’s sense of apprehension.

Despite all the newsroom gossip and speculation, workers were generally ignorant of the corporation’s financial situation and strategic plan. The wall that Otis Chandler had erected between business operations and the editorial department had been so effective that the reporters felt themselves immune from what was happening in the corporate offices on the sixth floor. They were, in fact, scornful of those who worked on the paper’s business side. The vast majority of editors were just as ignorant as the reporters. The few who knew what was happening didn’t choose to share their knowledge.

Thomas’ successor, Coffey, was a slender, athletic man who had bonded with Otis Chandler a few years before when they were lifting weights in a Washington gym. Johnson had chosen him as editor after a dragged-out process that required Coffey, who had been editor of the Dallas Times Herald, and the other contenders for the job to write essays laying out their plans for the paper. Thomas had made him a deputy associate editor in the features department, but it was clear he was on his way to bigger things. Even though his mandate was features, he went out to lunch with editors in the hard news departments and asked questions about what they did and the difficulties they faced in their coverage.Once established as editor, Coffey could be an excellent and exciting leader. For example, he loved the O.J. Simpson murder trial and often wandered to the section of the newsroom where the O.J. team worked to talk about the event. But he was cautious and often reluctant to take a chance on a daring idea. His editors sensed his reluctance and copied it.

Nor did Coffey or his editors know how to deal with a changing Southland. The model that Otis Chandler had created, essentially aimed at middle-class Southern Californians who got their information by reading, was no longer viable. The paper’s suburban sections were not attracting advertisers, and the large Orange County and San Fernando Valley editions were steadily losing ground.

book cover

Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times

By Bill Boyarsky / Based on the film by Peter Jones

Angel City Press, 208 pages

Buy the book

The Times trailed competitors in seven of eleven Southern California market areas. Various attempts were made to turn things around, but nothing seemed to work. The San Fernando Valley and Orange County editions were turned into virtually independent papers, putting local stories from their areas on page one. The Otis Chandler formula, stressing the importance of national and foreign stories, was abandoned. Orange County, especially, consumed so many resources that it became known as the Times’ Vietnam, a quagmire with no victory in sight. On top of this, the readers and advertisers continued to drift away.

In 1995, as revenues continued to fall, the Chandler family reached outside Times Mirror and brought in an outsider as president and CEO of Times Mirror. Mark Willes, as vice president of General Mills Inc. was known as “Cap’n Crunch” because of his a reputation as a marketer with a focus on cost cutting and the bottom line. Two years after becoming CEO, Willes appointed himself publisher of the Times. He held the two jobs until 1999 when he appointed a new publisher, his protégé Kathryn Downing, who had headed another Times Mirror company. Whatever the titles, Willes was in command.

Unlike Tom Johnson or Otis Chandler, who both had left control of the newsroom to the editor, Willes was eager to meet reporters and ask about their work. Sometimes he invited them to lunch in the executive dining room. The reporters were surprised and flattered by the attention. In his public speeches, he spoke emotionally and cried when the subject—or his words—moved him. At first, audiences were impressed by this rare show of male emotion, but some people felt it was an act after seeing him cry on more than one occasion. The writers he courted began to question whether his tears and his concern for their work were an essential part of the Willes act.

Willes shut down the network of suburban editions except for the San Fernando Valley and Orange County editions. Editors were shifted around. Two Times Mirror newspapers, New York Newsday and the Baltimore Evening Sun, were closed. The payroll was reduced by a thousand jobs, with the Times hit hardest. Coffey looked gray and stricken the day he announced the cuts.

Willes’ most controversial change was to break down the figurative wall between the editorial department and the business side, mainly advertising. Otis Chandler had separated these departments to prevent advertisers from dictating the content of news stories, the way things had been done at newspapers in the past. Willes challenged the concept, saying he would use a bazooka to blow up the wall. He saw the editorial department as recalcitrant in its resistance to this change. Although he continued to have reporters to lunch, he couldn’t understand why they didn’t support his agenda. He felt the entire paper should unite behind him and help reach his goal of more advertising, circulation, and revenue. The journalists shared those goals, but they also regarded their business as a calling. Their primary goal was to dig out the news, not help sell ads.

To bring the journalists to heel, he installed mini-publishers in each of the editorial departments to work with the editors and come up with new ways of selling ads. The arrival of the mini-publishers soured the newsroom even more. So did troubling incidents, such as the advertising chief’s nearly successful attempt to have the consumer columnist fired when he exposed the fraudulent auto sales tactics of a major advertiser.

Uncertainty became a way of life in the newsroom. Sensing the disaster ahead, Coffey had resigned when Willes named himself publisher. The new editor was Michael Parks, a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent who had been managing editor. He had been a reporter for most of his career. He appreciated reporters and stood behind them when their stories were attacked by such powers as the mayor or the chief of police. He didn’t know much about management, but even the best of managers would have had trouble surviving this chaotic situation.

Parks tried to compromise when he was hit by orders from Willes and Downing that conflicted with the needs of his nervous staff. Editors grew frightened. They learned a new skill: managing up. It was a phrase beloved by management gurus, but in the newsroom it translated into the bowing and groveling of lower-level editors trying to please the layers of bosses above them. They second-guessed story ideas and turned down any that might displease management. Assignments came from the top down. Completed stories went through the hands of several editors. It was no longer a writer’s newspaper.

Willes and Downing charged ahead in their determination to win more advertising. A big new privately financed arena, the Staples Center, was nearing completion in downtown Los Angeles. The arena owners were seeking “founding partners” to help defray construction costs. Without divulging the plan to its editorial staff, management at the Times enrolled the paper as a founding partner of Staples Center at a cost of $1.8 million a year for five years. They also agreed to produce an edition of the Times Sunday magazine celebrating the opening of the arena. The paper and the new arena would share the advertising profits from this issue of the magazine. The arena management solicited its vendors and contractors to buy ads.

The secret arrangement was disclosed in local weekly papers and then in stories in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. The Journal said the arrangement “raised serious questions about how far a paper can go without damaging its integrity.”The national headlines touched off a rebellion in the newsroom at the Los Angeles Times. A petition was circulated demanding an apology from Kathryn Downing, the publisher. The next day, Downing met with the staff in the company cafeteria, filled beyond capacity. For ninety minutes, she faced unrelenting, belligerent questioning. She apologized “to each of you . . . To have the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal or anyone for that matter question our integrity is a horrendous place to be, and I am responsible for that.”

Otis Chandler watched all this from his ranch in Ojai. He had grown skeptical of Willes. “The Times is at great risk I think being run by people who have good intentions, are smart and so on, but no experience,” he said. “I think there’s a vulnerability.”

But Chandler no longer had any power at the Times. In 1998, he had been dropped from the board after he expressed his feelings about the family to journalist David Margolick for a 1996 profile in Vanity Fair. Margolick quoted him saying his relatives were “coupon clippers . . . elitists . . . bored with the problems of AIDS and the homeless and drive-by shootings.” He was not even offered the choice of staying on as a non-voting director, a gesture often offered to other board members.

book cover

Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times

By Bill Boyarsky / Based on the film by Peter Jones

Angel City Press, 208 pages

Buy the book

There were no longer any Chandlers on the staff of the Los Angeles Times. Otis’s oldest son, Norman, had undergone the same training program as his father and, like Otis, particularly enjoyed his work as a reporter. He learned how to cover the news, was intelligent, seemed to have the spark of leadership, and was popular with his co-workers. But Otis didn’t think Norman merited high command in the company:

The Chandler family would not have accepted Norman as publisher. He is not an outgoing, tough, aggressive leader as I was. He had no leadership jobs through the years as I did. He wasn’t in the service. He’s . . . gracious and kind . . . [but] if they put him in he would have failed because it wasn’t meant to be.

The issue was moot. Norman was discovered to have an inoperable brain tumor and died after a long decline.

His other son, Harry, was also interested in coming into the company, but his father didn’t offer him the opportunity for executive training that Norman had experienced. Harry finally went to work at the Times in its new media area. “I joined without him making a phone call,” Harry said. But he said Willes wasn’t interested in new media. “And I think as a Chandler, Mark Willes didn’t feel like [I was] his best friend . . . ” But even if Otis had been the pushiest of fathers, the family members controlling the board never would have given power to his sons. The Chandler era was just about over.

After the Staples scandal broke, Otis brooded at his ranch. Then he wrote a long message to the editorial department. He placed a call to the city editor, one of the few staff members he still knew, and asked him to deliver the message to the staff. The city editor, seated at his computer, took it down.

Otis read his remarks over the phone, with words reflecting his fury and sorrow:

To the employees of the Los Angeles Times, particularly of the editorial department because they have been so abused and misused . . . [by] the downsizing of the Times . . . the shrinking of the Times in terms of employees . . . the ill-advised steps that have been taken by current management . . . breaking down barriers, the traditional wall between editorial and the business departments.

My heart is heavy, my emotions are indescribable because I am afraid I am witnessing now a period in time in the history of this newspaper that is beyond description . . . I applaud the efforts of individual reporters who have spoken openly at their recent meeting with Kathryn Downing, and I also heartily endorse the letter that was presented to Michael Parks on November 2 which calls for a full and impartial publishing of all of the events that led up to the Staples controversy . . .

If a newspaper, even a great newspaper like the Los Angeles Times, loses credibility with its community, with its readers, with its advertisers, with its shareholders, that is probably the most serious circumstance that I can possibly think of. Respect and credibility of a newspaper is irreplaceable. Sometimes it never can be restored no matter what steps might be taken in terms of apology by the publisher, apology by the head of Times Mirror or whatever post-event strategies might be developed in the hopes of putting the pieces back together.

When I think back through the history . . . of this great newspaper . . . I realize how fragile and irreplaceable public trust in a newspaper is. This public trust and faith in a newspaper by its employees, its readers, the community, is dearer to me than life itself.

At six o’clock that evening, after the paper’s deadline, the city editor called the entire staff together and read Otis’s words to a packed newsroom. There was silence while the message was read, followed by applause. Soon after, pictures of Otis were posted throughout the big room.

Downing called Otis “angry and bitter.” Somewhat surprisingly, his foes in the family were resentful of her statement—who was she to insult a Chandler? Even before the Staples scandal, the family had been considering selling Times Mirror. Willes had pretty much stripped the company down to its print enterprises, and it was clear by 2000 that the newspaper business was heading downhill. Downing’s insult to Otis and the intensive national coverage of the Staples controversy gave the family a final push toward concluding the sale. On March 13, 2000, Times Mirror became part of the company that owned the Chicago Tribune.

Otis said he was pleased that the Tribune Company was taking over. A few weeks later, he and Bettina returned to the paper for the first time since he had been dismissed from the board. With Bettina at his side, he walked through the entire newsroom, past the pictures of him still hanging there. He stopped at every department. The journalists crowded around him, wanting to greet him. Many were meeting him for the first time.

He had brought integrity, honor and civic responsibility to the Los Angeles Times as well as great prosperity. Aware of what he had given to the paper—and knowing those days were passing—the workers on the newsroom floor were proud to shake his hand.

“Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times”
By Bill Boyarsky / Based on the film by Peter Jones
ISBN 978-1-883318-92-5, $35
Published by Angel City Press, Santa Monica
Copyright © 2009 by Bill Boyarsky and Peter Jones
Excerpt reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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